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JNU Row has opened up the debate on freedom of expression verses nationalism- Comment.


Today we live in a world where the nation is the dominant way of organizing people. We have to identify ourselves and others as nationals of a country. From childhood one is taught the history and trivia related to his/her country even before children can perceive the geographical spread of a country or for that matter understand what a nation really means. Only a minority of intellectuals and academicians who study the history of nationalism can see that there is nothing natural about what we call our nation, that it is a construct, a product of certain historical circumstances. The formation of each nation comes about for different reasons. The average citizen of any country feels that love for and loyalty towards one's nation is something obvious and natural. Patriotism and Nationalism are often understood as one and the same thing and both are seen as virtues. In India over the past few weeks these common assumptions have been questioned and debated as a response to a series of events related mainly to students' political activism and the way the central government handles such activities. This blog post looks at this aspect of the so called "JNU row." Background to the JNU Incident Debate over Nationalism is surging in India after the police arrested a young student political leader named Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union), by charging him for sedition after an event was organized in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) to discuss how the government of India handles the issues of Kashmir and capital punishment. A detailed report on these events can be read here at The Hindu. It was alleged that the students who organized the event were shouting "anti India slogans." The video of these slogans were played by television news channels several times and launched a media trial of the student leaders in question. The Delhi police entered the university campus and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, against the common practice in which a university proctorial board would decide the future course of action. Media played a huge role in the issue by over-simplifying or dumbing down complex ideas and concepts, which led to the formation of public opinion that questioned the patriotism and loyalty of students of JNU to the Indian nation. The term "anti national" was used again and again to condemn them. Petitions were launched over social media to "Shut down JNU." One of the student leaders, Umar Khalid, was quickly alleged to have connections with a Pakistani terrorist organization. The Home Minister also commented on the links between these students and Pakistani terrorists based on a twitter account that was later revealed to be fake. Little evidence was available and all this was done based on speculation.

JNU is one of the most prestigious and esteemed universities of India, among the very few which figures in international rankings. It provides a quality education at a highly subsidized rate. Most students pursuing research get some kind of financial assistance. It is characterized by a campus life where student politics play an important role. The walls are filled with posters that display the different political ideologies on campus. Many professors are known to have left leaning political ideologies and defend the values of socialism while criticizing Neoliberalism, Casteism, Brahmanism, and Patriarchy. The event that sparked the controversy was to commemorate the execution of Afzal Guru, a man convicted for planning a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, whose hanging was controversial, especially in the region of Kashmir. This discussion frequently leads to claims about the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people, and this event was attended by Kashmiri youth from outside JNU. Kashmir, the northern most part of India, has been a conflict area since the birth of India and Pakistan as nations after their independence from British rule in 1947. Life in Kashmir is precarious, caused on one side by the militants and on the other side by the Indian army. The militants claim to be fighting for the freedom of Kashmir but, as the press has documented, often act like terrorists. (One could draw parallels to ETA in Spain.) To control the activities of the militants, the Indian government deploys a huge army at all times. Given these circumstances a discussion on the execution may have invoked repressed sentiments in some and they may have raised certain slogans which can be termed anti India. But using this incident to label the entire university as indulging in "anti national activities" is an exaggerated reaction. Defenders of JNU and the liberal left politics are seeing in this a massive attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to crush dissent.

From the second week of February till a few days ago, I, (Swagata Basu, an alumnus of JNU and an assistant professor at a university which aspires to be like JNU) was extremely anxious. I was feeling like the world, my country as I knew it, was coming to an end. It was the first time that I could truly relate to the trauma people face under repressive authoritarian regimes, civil wars, revolutions; things that I teach to my student as part of my courses on Spanish and Latin American History and Culture. I was reminded of the Falangist ideology defended and promoted by General Francisco Franco during and after the Spanish Civil War. What a tragic, fratricidal war it was. A war that killed millions, including a brilliant young poet like Federico Garcia. I could for the first time understand what it's like to fight for a cause; how one can give up their comfortable life and plunge into a fight, to defend an idea that you want to see survive. I was also afraid all the time, waiting to hear the latest update on the JNU students' condition. Some of them were jailed and others were questioned and still many more were protesting on the streets of Delhi. I was away in a different city and I suddenly felt my surrounding to be meaningless. My heart was with them, the 'anti nationals' of JNU. I really felt threatened. I read about a Lucknow University professor being attacked for sharing an article in support of the JNU students and I felt that it could be me. I wondered what if they are being beaten and tortured in jail. What if they get killed? I wondered what will happen to all my professors if they closed the university. On March 3 , Kanhaiya Kumar was released on interim bail and the speech he gave upon his arrival on JNU has put my faith back in the constitution and given me some hope. Yet the future doesn't look very bright. Fresh issues are coming up in Allahabad University, where the first female President of the student union is allegedly facing harassment for her activism. The PM has still not spoken on these issues. Ms. Smriti Irani has still not apologized for the death of Rohith Vemula and continues to campaign against anti nationals. Perhaps Kanhaiya Kumar will be able to lead the youth to a culture of open and free academic discussion. Upon release he chanted his slogan for Azadi once again. He clarified this time that he is talking about freedom in India not from India. "Freedom from Hunger, from Sanghwad, from Feudalism, from Capitalism, from Brahminism, from Casteism." And I do not see anything anti-national about that.

- ABHINAB BORUAH